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Selfless Action is a Practice

It is no secret that humanity is in an age of darkness—the Kali Yuga according to Vedic scripture: global warming, environmental collapse, species extinction, animal exploitation, war, greed, fear, hatred, and violence are all part of the age in which we live. It can be overwhelming, and with so many global humanitarian and environmental issues to be addressed, it can be easy to give up hope or to not know where to begin in order to make a difference. We might think, “What good will my individual actions do? How can they possibly make a difference given the magnitude of the problems in the world?”


We may be so overwhelmed that we choose inaction, thinking that our actions can’t possibly make a difference, and so we do nothing. Yet we remain fixated on our social media feeds and other news outlets, being depressed and shaking our heads over the suffering we see but feel helpless to alleviate.


The Bhagavad Gita (Ch. 3, v.25) offers a practice to help us: "Saktah karmani-avidvamso/yatha kurvanti bharata/kuryad vidvans tatha-asaktas/cikirsur loka-samgraham" or "The unwise are attached to their actions, while the wise are unattached and act selflessly to benefit the world" (interpretation from Jivamukti Chant Book p. 18)


In the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that like many of us, Arjuna was also overwhelmed by the times in which he was living—he wanted to choose inaction. But Krishna tells him that one who withdraws from action yet whose mind is still caught up in the action is a hypocrite (Ch. 3, v. 6). Krishna teaches Arjuna the path of Karma Yoga, the yoga of selfless service. Karma Yoga is a technique for extracting ourselves from the turmoil of life by shifting our perspective on our actions, rather than choosing inaction as a coping mechanism.


In his translation of chapter 3, verse 25 of The Bhagavad Gita, Swami Satchidananda says the unwise do things wanting some results for themselves, while a wise person acts “without attachment, and thus guides others on the path of selfless action” (“The Living Gita” p.45). Acting for one’s own benefit is selfish action, while acting for the benefit of others is selfless action.


Thus, the intention behind our action is important. To bring consciousness to our actions, we must ask ourselves, “Why am I acting? What am I acting for?” We must also ask ourselves if we expect certain outcomes, rewards, or recognition for our action. Selfless action means letting go of expectation of desired results—acting without desiring the fruits of the action. It is acting for the benefit of others, not for our own benefit or gratification.


In his essay “Enlightened Anarchism,” Swami Nirmalananda says, “Seeing the thorny problems of the world and society, many sincere people want to spread one single thick carpet all over the world, which is an impossible task. It is enough if each one wears a pair of shoes so that he may be able to walk without being hurt by stones and thorns. By changing oneself, we can change the world.” He continues, “Action performed with a selfish motive, with a conditioned and confused mind creates only more confusion and reactions. With precision and clarity, we are able to live a clean-hearted and clear-minded life.”


Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Laying Eggs in Costa Rica

During a beach clean-up in Costa Rica, I learned that even the smallest piece of plastic on the beach can be enough for a sea turtle to reject a nesting site. On my second trip to Costa Rica, I participated in two more beach clean-ups. The amount of trash we collected in a short time on a small section of beach was more than enough to fill all the trash bags we had been supplied with for the job.


As I worked, I kept bringing to mind all marine life (the ocean people) who are negatively affected by plastic pollution. It was a practice not to get caught up in thinking about how what we were collecting was such an insignificant amount, especially in comparison to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.


Consisting of two massive vortexes, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a “soupy collection of marine debris—mostly plastics,” so large that it is impossible for scientists to accurately measure: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/ “The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.”


I worked not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, one which, as a consumer in North America, I had of course contributed to. I vowed to reduce my use of plastics. I kept reminding myself that my intention was selfless action—picking up plastic for the benefit of the ocean people, and while my mind wanted to focus on the seemingly inconsequential impact of picking up so little trash given how much there is in oceans worldwide, I practiced shifting my perspective on my action, on letting go of the results. To act selflessly for the benefit of others, even seemingly small actions, is better than no action at all.

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